Defeat and Revival : Thoughts on The Weight of the Stars [Book Review]

In 2013 Barry Pateman wrote a piece about Ethel Mannin’s No More Mimosa, his contact with Spanish anarchist exiles and the contrast between the revolutionary situation they had been part of and the grim reality of defeat. ‘Exile meant the end of nearly everything they had known. […] A terrible protective dignity became their defense against a world that had cast them adrift.’ [1] 

The anarchist exiles were hardly a homogenous bloc. Different choices, experiences, attitudes and status within the movement before 1939 saw to that (never mind the difference between being exiled in, say, France or Mexico). As a child, Octavio Alberola went into exile with his family: his father was the rationalist schoolteacher José Alberola Navarro who clashed with some members of the Durruti Column: ‘The revolution’s purpose is not providing opportunities for vengeance, but rather to set an example.’ [p.20]

In exile in Mexico, Octavio met Fidel Castro and Che Guevara before they were famous; and also fell foul of the unwritten rule that refugees should not get involved in Mexican politics. After that, Alberola was part of the anarchist resurgence (and not only within the Spanish movement) that we think of as part of the sixties. Partly this connected with the confidence of a new generation, as seen at the Limoges Congress of 1961: ‘On one side stood the “veterans,” the militants who had fought against fascism in the civil war. They were now twenty-two years older, fifty years old and up. Mature, tempered people who proceeded at a comfortable pace. On the other side were the “newcomers,” the children of exile, who had left Spain at a very young age or been born elsewhere. With no investment in the myth, they didn’t hesitate to make action the priority.’ [p.114]

Octavio was part of this ‘activist’ current, being involved in Defensa Interior and the First of May Group. Neither group succeeded in assassinating Franco but their other strand of symbolic actions generated much negative publicity for the Spanish dictatorship. Not to mention a certain amount of controversy within the movement. After the Ussia kidnapping by the First of May Group,[2] leaders of the CNT denounced the ‘thoroughly negative initiative’ [p.176] only to be answered ‘They at least are living in the present rather in the past like some older militants who once had credibility, or in the future, like others who make anarchy the way they would construct scale models once their working hours are over or when they have time on their hands’.[3]. Some veterans, Like Cipriano Mera or Juan Garcia Oliver, were involved in the Defensa Interior, so it was not purely a difference of generations.

The Weight of the Stars is an essential contribution to the history of the anarchist struggle against Francoism. Stuart Christie felt a personal duty to commemorate ‘the hundreds of thousands of brave people who fought, suffered, died and lost loved ones in the selfless cause of resisting the reactionary, priest-, gun- and prison-backed ideology that was Francoism.’ [4] Other comrades have expressed the same obligation to me more bluntly with the words ‘people fucking died’.

Beyond that, the book is valuable for showing that you can be concerned with the struggle for historical memory without living in the past. Alberola has kept engaged with current issues. See, for example, his view of how we got to our current situation: ‘Capitalism is unfair and noxious, it is stained with blood and represents an ecological threat, but with its pragmatic approach, it rode roughshod over the experiment in actual socialism, which was itself yet another bloodstained caricature of capitalism. Thus, from the 1980s onwards, capitalism was everything.’

I’m grateful to Comotto for the work he has put in. I think there must be many comrades out there who have been too busy living and held off writing their life story – Comotto’s work means that we hear, rather than just wondering what Alberola’s view is. And we have to thank Paul Sharkey that we can read it in English.


1, ‘No More Mimosa by Ethel Mannin: A re-consideration and appreciation’ Bulletin of the [Aotearoa-New Zealand] Labour History Project (December 2013 ), reprinted in KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 78-79, September 2014
2, see ‘One Episode in the Libertarian Movement’s Struggle against Francoism : The “First of May Group” and the kidnapping in Rome of Monsignor Marcos Ussia, the ecclesiastical attaché at Spain’s embassy to the Vatican (Friday 29 April 1966 – Wednesday 11 May 1966)’ by Antonio Téllez at 
3, G. Debras in Le Combat Syndicaliste, quoted on p.177
4, page ii of General Franco made me a Terrorist

The Weight of the Stars: The Life of Anarchist Octavio Alberola by Agustín Comotto with Octavio Alberola, translated by Paul Sharkey.

There’s a review by Xavier Montanyà, originally published on Christiebooks, at